Ilon Wikland – An artist with an instinct for detail

She is perhaps best known for drawing beloved characters such as Karlsson on the Roof, Madicken and The Brothers Lionheart, but Ilon Wikland’s art covers so much more. It spans over seventy years, and not even her daughters know how much Ilon has produced in that time.

Ilon Wikland is one of Sweden’s most beloved children’s book illustrators and an icon in Swedish children’s book literature. She has received several awards and prizes over the years in recognition of her work. Despite all this success and a career adorned with praise and appreciation from people of all ages around the world, she has remained humble. Now 92 years old, Ilon has handed over control of the company Design Ilon Wikland AB to her daughters Helene, Birgitta, Fredrika and Anna, something that was not a matter of course.

Ilon with her four daughters in 1967. Anna in Ilons arms, Fredrika to the left, Birgitta in the middle and Helene to the right.

“Mum has always managed her company herself and has probably never taken it for granted that we would manage her inheritance,” says Fredrika Wikland“But of course, we want to continue to ensure that her art lives on, and that people around the world can see and enjoy her work. Our whole upbringing has been characterized by her work and her strong commitment to it. When our mother decided to let go, she did it completely and gave us full confidence to continue the work.”

When Fredrika and her sisters talk about their mother and their childhood, it is easy to see snapshots of their everyday life – Ilon working at home in her light-filled studio in the house, while the children run in and out and shout with happy voices, closely followed by a nanny desperately trying to keep them in order. Although not a traditional mum herself, in her art Ilon liked to depict mothers who rolled their own meatballs and baked buns in a fog of flour, dressed in slippers and aprons. She also drew inspiration for many of her legendary environments and characters from her own home – the children’s playroom became Karlsson’s room in Karlsson- on-the-Roof, and everyone who knows the family can quickly recognise the similarities.

“Lotta on Troublemaker Street is based on our little sister Anna, while little Kerstin in The Children of Noisy Village is our sister Birgitta. In Lotta’s Bike, Lotta has a crocheted hat on her head that our Turkish nanny made for Anna and that all of us sisters used, as did our children. Today, that hat is at Anna’s home as a fond memory,” says Fredrika.

Illustration: © Design Ilon Wikland AB. Lotta on Troublemaker Street: TM and © The Astrid Lindgren Company 

Ilon’s own childhood and upbringing is an enthralling story, which she wrote about in the autobiographical book Den långa, långa resan (The Long, Long Journey) published in 1995. What it was like to come to Sweden as an unaccompanied refugee child from Estonia is not something Ilon talks about very often. She has previously said in an interview that she wanted to draw a book about what it really was like in Estonia during the Russian and German occupations, but that it would never happen because it was such a difficult time in her life.
Illustration from The Long, Long Journey

Perhaps it is Ilon’s childhood that gives her images their shadows and melancholic streak, a balance between light and darkness that helps to make her characters multidimensional and complex.

“Mum has never been afraid to show her feelings or be childish. She has a great sense of humour and loves animals,” says Fredrika. She also tells of how Ilon often carried spiders out of the house in her hands, urging others to do the same with her musical Estonian accent. Another strong memory is when Ilon had received the manuscript for the Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren- “I remember how we sat and had dinner and asked her what the book was about. My mother began to cry violently because she was so touched by the story of the brothers Jonathan and Crusty,” she explains.

The sisters also tell the story of when Ilon was heavily pregnant with Birgitta and their father had gotten a job as an attaché in Paris, 1955. Astrid had previously given Ilon the script to Karlsson on the Roof but did not like the sketches she received, and Ilon needed to find inspiration for a new proposal. One day, when Ilon was on her way into the market halls, she met a little man in a checked shirt pulling on a cart with vegetables. Ilon followed the man, scribbling furiously on her drawing pad with her pencil and shouting ”there he is!”That was how she found her Karlsson.

In 1953, Ilon applied for a job as an illustrator at Rabén & Sjögren, where she met Astrid Lindgren. The rest is history. 


What is the secret behind Ilon’s success and what was it like having a famous artist as a mother?

“We have always had a great admiration for her and understood that she is skilled at painting and illustrating emotions. Combined with her eye for detail, this allows her to be authentic and accurate in her illustrations – for example, how she was able to describe how angry Lotta is and how painful it is to scratch a knee in such a recognisable way.”

Fredrika tells about an exhibition in Berlin in February 2015 when the sisters saw many of Ilon’s illustrations and prints and books of her creative work, and they realised how enormously productive their mother had been during their upbringing. “In the book Ilon Wikland – ett konstnärsliv (Ilon Wikland – An Artistic Life), which was published in Swedish in 2020, just in time for her 90th birthday, our mother describes how hard it was to have a deadline and not be happy with what she had done, how stressful it was and how she could sit up all night to get the details right.” 

Sister Anna says that they usually only saw Ilon’s drawings when the books were ready and printed:

“Sometimes we would get sketches that she was not happy with to use as drawing paper. Mum kept a very low profile; she never made a fuss about herself and was a real hidden gem. It was not until later in life that she began to appear on TV shows and in the newspapers. Our friends did not even believe us when we told them what mother worked with, but when she was noticed in the media for illustrating Astrid Lindgren’s books, we were all very proud.”

For three years, Design Ilon Wikland AB has been collaborating with Rights & Brands to develop the brand and spread Ilon’s work in several different forms, from books to branded products, around the world. The collaboration was started in part thanks to Ilon’s good friend, author Mark Levengood. Ilon had illustrated several of Mark’s books, and he told her that Rights & Brands could help her company with the ongoing work of being responsible for rights, licenses and collaborations. Mark was already familiar with the company through his ambassadorship for Moomin, which also collaborates with Rights & Brands.

“We always look at mum’s wishes and make decisions accordingly. Together, we sisters discuss which direction we should go – for example, which colours and which design we think feels right. Rights & Brands collect all the requests that are constantly coming in and they select what is in line with our values and vision. They are so committed and make sure that things happen all the time – right now, we have a fantastic collaboration with Astrid Lindgren AB, which we are very happy about,” says Fredrika Wikland.

On the question of where Design Ilon Wikland AB is going and what the dream scenario would be for the future, the sisters are all in agreement. People all over the world should be able to enjoy their mother’s work, but without it being over-exploited as Ilon has always cared about quality, exclusivity and authenticity.

In the Estonian city of Haapsalu and at the museum Iloni Imedemaa (Ilon’s Wonderland), over 800 of her original illustrations are collected, but a dream of the family is to create a permanent place in Stockholm for works from Ilon’s 70-year career.

“For us, it is extremely important to highlight Ilon’s art, bring her work out into the world and thinking in new ways, and at the same time maintaining its integrity and authenticity. It would also be exciting for us as her daughters, as we have only seen a fraction of everything she has produced.”

Text: Sonja Björk Ebert